Saturday, March 03, 2007


Best Sermons Ever

Christopher Howe (compiler), Continuum, 2001

Some people - I'm one of them - actually enjoy reading others' sermons.

When John Claypool used to publish his each week, and sent them out once a month, I often found myself dropping everything to read them.

I've done the same with other contemporary homiletical "greats" like Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Fred Craddock and William Willimon. And, a generation ago, W. E. Sangster and James Stewart. And before that, F. W. Boreham. And if you add the black preachers Martin Luther King and Gardner Taylor, that just about completes the list of English-speaking/writing "greats" in the 20th century, in my view.

So how would you select the Best Sermons Ever? Here's Howe's list: Peter the Apostle, John Chrysostom, St Augustine, Aelfric, St Bernard, The Homilies, Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Lawrence Sterne, Sydney Smith, John Henry Newman, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, H.A. Williams, and Pope John Paul II.

Now, class, what does that list suggest to you? We'll come back to that.

In addition, Howe offers excerpts from other sermons and prayers from people ranging from St Francis of Assisi, George Herbert, John Keble ... to moderns like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

First, a little introduction to the "practical theology" of preaching. What is preaching supposed to "do", if I can put the question into a utilitarian frame of reference? I'd suggest the best preaching is didactic, prophetic, and dramatic (see for more on that).

Christopher Howe would, I think, prefer three other adjectives: erudite, scholarly, and/or "literary". In other words, he comes to this exercise as a litterateur, rather than as a homiletician.

Notice the absence of modern American mainline preachers in his list? Yes, perhaps Jonathan Edwards, M. L. King and Billy Graham deserve a place, but what of the others most theologically-sophisticated Americans are reading, like those mentioned above? (The answer, from my experience of eight to ten trips to the UK for pastors' conferences: on that side of the Atlantic they've never heard of them). And I'm surprised Sangster and Stewart are missing.

So, frankly, most of these sermons are of classical - rather than devotional - interest only. Some of them are heavily impregnated with Latin phrases and other obscurantisms. And some fit into the category of "Why use ten words when 100 will suffice?"

One of the best is a homiletical essay - Jonathan Swift's "Upon Sleeping in Church". The text, of course, is about Eutychus falling out of the window, Acts 20:9: "The accident which happened to this young man hath not been sufficient to discourage his successors." But, frankly, I'd go to sleep in some of these sermons - especially Laurence Sterne's on "Evil Speaking".

And some are both brilliant and scary. How about this, from Jonathan Edwards' 15-page sermon (without a title - but from one version of his famous "Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God" - see
Warnings/sinners.htm ): "If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot. And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you, in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets."

No wonder "revival" broke out when people heard this sort of diatribe!

Some excerpts and notes (many of these are in the category "they don't produce them like this anymore!"):

• Wesley travelled on foot or horseback 225,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons!

• Lancelot Andrewes mastered 15 languages!

• "In Lapland witches sell winds" (John Donne).

• "Celibate, like the fly in the heart of an apple, dwells in a perpetual sweetness, but sits alone, and is confined and dies in singularity; but marriage, like the useful bee, builds a house and gathers sweetness from every flower ... and feeds the world with delicacies" (Jeremy Taylor).

• "It is my duty - it is my wish - it is the subject of this day to point out those evils of the Catholic religion from which we have escaped" (from Sydney Smith's 'The Rules of Christian Charity' !). Another profundity from that sermon: "The evil of difference of opinion must exist - it admits of no cure."

• "When people say that I acted charitably towards so and so, what they generally mean is that in fact that I hate his guts but managed to behave as though I didn't" (H. A. Williams).

An inspirational note from Martin Luther King to conclude: "Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love ... Let us have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realise that ... we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves."

This book reminds me of the November 9, 1895 Punch cartoon, which showed a timid curate having breakfast in his bishop's home. The bishop is saying, "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones," to which the curate replies, in a desperate attempt not to give offence, "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

If you are a theological or literary sophisticate who reads sermons without wanting to be "spiritually challenged" by them, this book is widely available.

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries

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